I hate the world.
I am not sure when I started to feel this way, but I can identify two moments where I became aware that something was shifting in the way that I thought of and experienced the world. The first came when I was visiting Sanjūsangen-dō, a temple in Kyoto, which contains a statue of the Buddha with eleven heads. The guide showing us around the temple explained that the Buddha had so many heads because the world contained too much suffering for just one face. Seeing this statue, a physical embodiment of a feeling that I had not been able to put into words, both clarified and accelerated an affective shift in how I understood the world.
This experience was nearly twenty years ago, but it stayed with me as I started a PhD on apocalyptic political theology. The second moment came in the course of this research, when I was reading the work of the Jewish scholar Jacob Taubes. During a series of lectures given at the end of his life, Taubes described his relationship to the world: ‘I can imagine as an apocalyptic: let it go down. I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is’ (Taubes 2004: 103). In reading Taubes, I found a theoretical vision that helped me articulate the feeling I had standing in front of the Buddha with eleven heads.
As much as Taubes offers a beautiful articulation of apocalypticism, I have never been satisfied with an underlying sense of indifference that occasionally rises to the surface of his writings. I read his main theoretical works as offering an apocalypticism that is theological and ontological, rooted in a combination of Judaism, Gnosticism and a reading of Christianity. In this sense, the statue of the Buddha and Taubes offer complementary rather than analogous responses to the world. In my mind, I gave the statue a backstory. I imagined it looking upon the suffering of the world and its head, incapable of witnessing the violence, exploding into eleven faces. The statue manifests the visceral experience of contemplating the spectrum of suffering that marks life. Taubes is not indifferent to suffering, at least as far as humans are concerned, but his writings lack the sense of apocalypticism as an affectively charged response to the violence of the world.
Gradually, I came to understand this combination of ontological apocalypticism and repulsion as a form of hatred. It is a hatred of the world, the configuration of inescapable relations that dictate the possibilities of life, human and otherwise. This hatred does not posit a world ‘over there’—it is not a relationship to something external. To adapt a line from Adorno, ‘you have to have the world in oneself in order to hate it properly’ (Adorno 2005: 52). This self-world relation is in tension with the tone of completion present in Taubes’ apocalyptic mantra —‘I have no spiritual investment in the world’. I lack that sense that I am spiritually disinvested from the world. It is more a matter of learning how to hate the world in me, engaging in a ceaseless process of disinvesting.
To further complicate matters, this hatred, undoubtedly a peculiar kind of pessimism, can easily fall into a self-indulgent melancholy. Declaring that there is nothing one can do reeks of a privileged position. There are many people in the world who refuse this sentiment, arguing that we must do something (to mitigate climate change, to end racial discrimination, to combat sexual violence). The idea that we cannot do anything only seems plausible to someone who does not find it necessary to act. Or, put differently, hopelessness only makes sense to those who have the luxury of abandoning hope. My struggle is that I simultaneously find that critique very compelling and cannot shake this deep hatred of the world. I often find myself overwhelmed thinking about the scope of suffering and violence that characterises life. So, I keep returning to the apocalyptic question which I cannot escape. What affective and cognitive calibrations must one make not to be filled with rage? In asking this question, I am not putting forward a rational thesis about the state of the world. Like most things that really matter, my experience of this apocalyptic sentiment is not a matter of wilful assent to an abstract proposition (see Frankfurt 1982: 257–72). I am confronting an orientation to the world that emerged gradually until it seemed common sense. How can one not hate the world? To pose this question is not a moralising critique either. Rather, I want to clarify what exactly apocalypticism captures and why it does not easily fit into the categories of either pessimism or hope.
My apocalyptic question requires a host of sub-questions, which are the focus of what follows. Why do I think/feel that the world is so bad? What exactly is the world? Why, even if the world is bad, should one still not maintain hope? And, if one follows Taubes in trying to think/feel an apocalyptic relation to the world, what does that look like?
One final qualification: I do not pretend to speak for apocalypticism as such, though the conventions of language mean that I will refer to ‘apocalypticism’ or ‘the apocalyptic’. There are a variety of apocalypticisms, theological and secular, reactionary and liberatory, millenarian and not. While Catherine Keller convincingly argues that there is a shared apocalyptic ‘habit’, I am more interested in expanding the possibilities of apocalyptic thought rather than reviving specific historical manifestations of ‘good’ apocalypticism. There are connections between this form of apocalypticism and Jewish and Christian theologies, but I take those traditions as resources to be consulted rather than constraints that dictate what can and cannot be said about the end of the world.
Some time ago, in the course of researching these very questions, I came across something seemingly unrelated to my investigation. In his Savage Ecology, Jarius Victor Grove makes a quick reference to a proposed US policy that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to study the effects of pesticides on children (Grove 2019: 256). The policy addressed situations in which parental assent was not needed to carry out studies. These situations included those in which ‘the capability of some or all of the children is so limited that they cannot reasonably be consulted’ or studies in which ‘parental or guardian permission is not a reasonable requirement to protect the subjects (for example, neglected or abused children)’ (The Federal Register 2005: 53865). These questions were being raised in the context of a proposal to allow for ‘an extraordinary procedure’ that would allow ‘an intentional dosing study involving pregnant women or children as subjects’ so long as it was deemed ‘crucial to the protection of public health’ (The Federal Register 2005: 53857).
Having encountered this information my first reaction was disbelief. A quick Google search confirmed that this policy was proposed and attracted little attention or dissent. I should not have been surprised. A year or two earlier, I came across information on the continued forced sterilisation of teenagers and adults judged to be ‘disabled’ (National Women’s Law Center 2021). The new information stayed with me for a few days and then, like the facts about forced sterilisation, slipped away.
It is not hard to find evidence of these kinds of horrors. I have chosen this example because I was surprised by the way it surprised me. Having spent a lot of time thinking about the many ways that humans do violence to humans and other living things, it is unusual to have a moment of doubt—to think, ‘Really?’ It seems so unnecessary, so pointlessly cruel. I think what is striking about these policies is not just the idea that somewhere in the US there may be someone at this very moment carrying out such tests. It is also the fact that someone thought it was a good idea and was able to convince other people that it, amongst all the other policies that could be proposed, was worthwhile. This policy was an agenda item. There will have been a committee meeting where someone discussed carrying out tests on people before passing on to ‘any other business.’
Mainstream news sources are usually replete with details of suffering and violence. Yet these same sources often carry out an alchemistic process that takes everyday suffering and turns it exceptional. Of course, violence is often exceptional to those who experience it, but reporting on everything from sexual violence to police brutality treats these incidents of violence in a way that obscures how ordinary they are. To be clear, I am not suggesting that these forms of violence are ordinary in the sense that they do not deserve attention. They are ordinary in that the world is filled with this kind of violence all the time. The problem is that if every violent act received the attention it deserved, our heads would explode into eleven faces.
There is nothing novel about this observation. Hannah Arendt identified the banality of evil fifty years ago (Arendt 2006). Arendt is not talking about exactly the same thing; her attention is more on the complacency of those who engage in horrific acts. It is related, however, in that it is easy to find oneself in a position where unspeakable violence is quotidian. Despite the horrific nature of this violence, this everyday evil is—by its nature—easy to overlook (at least for those who are not experiencing its consequences).
This everyday evil is only one of three forms of evil that must be thought simultaneously in order to understand our present moment. If the first is everyday evil, the second is villainous evil. There are people and groups who act with disdain for the rest of humanity. Dictators and tyrants fall into this category. There are also increasingly those whose consume and waste at levels that would have been previously unimaginable. The building of the kind of wealth necessary to enable this detachment is evil. It is evil to have amassed wealth as a result of the need of people during the pandemic (as many of the world’s richest have). The members of this group are not all the same, but they occupy a similar structural position with regards to the rest of the members of their societies.
The final kind of evil is the evil that lies beneath the other two. It is the necessary condition, not of evil as such, but of the forms of evil that I have been discussing. This evil is the evil of the world. If the treatment of those judged to be disabled in the US is an example of everyday evil, then the hierarchical division of humanity into those who are normal and those who are disabled is an example of the evil of the world.
I should pause here to discuss the use of the term evil. It is an uncomfortable term, bringing with it lots of theological baggage. I use it here because I take apocalypticism to be intimately related to theodicy or the problem of evil. If Hegel observes that history functions as a kind of theodicy, whether in a theological or secular register, apocalypticism can be an anti-theodicy. Most, if not all, apocalypticism in the classical theological sense still offers a form of salvation (if only for some). As ‘apocalypse’ moves from this theological register to a broader genre, found in a variety of philosophies, theories, novels, films and other events, the connection to notions of salvation or redemption fades. Or, what is saved or redeemed is not understood theologically, but politically or culturally: the nation, the family, masculinity, etc. In opposition to both these more traditional forms, there is the possibility of apocalypticism that rejects redemption altogether. There is nothing, neither god nor historical progress, that is capable of making the wrongs of history right. The only thing worth pursuing is the end of the world for its own sake.
My premise is that understanding the evil of the world is necessary for thinking about the question of hope. If the crises unfolding in the world today are only matters of villainy or everyday evil, then there is still hope for the world. But if the crises are crises of the world, rather than in the world, questions of hope become more ambiguous. Is one’s hope in the world? In that case, one’s hope is that incremental adjustments will make the evil of the world better. If one’s hope is not in this world, what does that mean? In other words, before thinking about solutions or strategies, it is important to agree on the nature of the problem. Understanding the evil of the world is essential to grasping apocalypticism.
There are a variety of ways of understanding this evil. Although they may not agree with my apocalyptic framing, a range of scholars have shown both how the crises confronting the world are interrelated and how these crises are not arbitrary problems. They are indicative of structural problems in a globalised society. These are not problems in the world, but problems of the world. A full account of this world would be a much bigger project, but a brief sketch is sufficient to indicate what I mean by ‘the world’.
Though the living and non-living elements of the Earth have always been connected in an Earth-System, the period between the 13th and 16th centuries saw an anthropogenically accelerated unification of the globe. The plague followed trade routes between Asia and Europe, eventually decimating populations (Le Roy Ladurie 1981). This tremendous loss of life pales in comparison to the consequences of colonial expansion. The European arrival brought violence and disease on such a scale that it likely impacted global temperatures (Koch et. al. 2019). It was during this same time period that new theological, philosophical and scientific approaches to race emerged, establishing a racial logic that would legitimise the transatlantic slave trade. Microbes, plants, animals and people circulated in new ways as the Earth was transformed into a world.
This unification continued into the 20th century as radiation further tied together the disparate parts of the planet. The first nuclear testing in 1945, was followed by an exponential rise in nuclear detonations, resulting in all life on Earth being marked by the chemical aftermath of tests and bombings (Yusoff 2019). As Günther Anders argues, the Earth is now unified by fear. Humanity has at its disposal weapons capable of destroying or permanently altering most life forms. What Anders feared would happen in an instant we now know has been happening slowly for centuries. The impact of climate change may not come with a flash and the force of an explosion, but the ocean is currently warming at a rate so high that it is as if the world’s oceans were being struck by multiple nuclear explosions per second (Carrington 2019).
The world was made through violence, disease, destruction, extraction and pollution. The evils of colonialism, slavery and climate change are not incidental to the world. They have been and are what makes the world. Judith Shklar is one of a number of philosophers who points out that it is incorrect to view injustice as an exception to the norm of a just society. In reality, she argues, the world is mostly unjust, with moments of justice being rare and hard won. Similarly, there is no world which is the good or even neutral backdrop to the evils I have been describing. Those are the world. The world cannot be put right or fixed, nor can it be undone so that we might return to some imagined ideal era. This point is at the essence of apocalypticism. If one thinks only of villainous and banal evils, evil is accidental to the world. Instances of suffering and violence are errors to be corrected, an imbalance to be rectified. Confronting the evil of the world itself brings one face to face with the apocalyptic problem.
How one thinks of climate change exemplifies the significance of thinking about evils in the world versus the evil of the world. Climate change can be posed as the problem of an increasingly volatile climate that risks regions of the earth becoming uninhabitable for humans and other forms of life, impacting everything from the quality of air to the ability to produce food. The solution is to find a sustainable mode of living in which humans rely more on renewable forms of energy and pollute less. This approach does not disrupt the underlying relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. The earth is still seen as a set of resources to be extracted and used, just used more responsibly.
Alternatively, climate change can be viewed as emerging from the relationship many humans have with the rest of nature. The problem is not climate change, rather climate change is symptomatic of the underlying extractive relationship that treats most of the non-human world as something to be used, consumed or exchanged. When someone uses the word ‘sustainable’, the first question is what is being sustained. An apocalyptic response is uninterested in sustaining this extractive and consumptive relationship to the rest of nature. Yet it is difficult to imagine alternatives without falling into nostalgic visions of a return to the local or embracing techno-utopian visions that only reinscribe human superiority over the rest of nature. Confronted with the need for an unimaginable alternative, one can begin the only thing worth beginning: the end of the world.
Returning to the opening lines of this essay, we are surrounded by unimaginable cruelty. The often-unthinking violence that marks the everyday existence of not just humans, but all living things can only be accounted for in numbers too large to really be comprehended: hectares of forest burned, number of children starved, tons of meat processed, percentage of refugees drowned while making the Channel crossing. Even the invocation of these facts feels wrong. Given the abstract nature of statistics, they can only function in a moralising way, as if it to chide an audience: ‘why aren’t you paying attention?’ This rhetoric transforms instances of real suffering into data points, evil converted into evidence in an argument, divorced from the sights, sounds and smells of suffering.
The world, to many of the people who will read these words, will not feel so violent. There is even a cottage industry of arguing that the world is actually becoming a better place. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined has become the most prominent example of this argument (Pinker 2012). The simplified version of this argument is that for most people—particularly people who are not straight white men—now is the best time to be alive.
This approach to thinking about violence and suffering treats human existence as abstractions. I suppose that there is some comfort to take in the fact that fewer people are the victims of direct racial violence than in earlier periods of history, but this seems an odd fact from which to draw any kind of satisfaction. It recalls the tendency, prevalent in both the US and UK, to celebrate the abolition of slavery. Rather than being overcome with the collective shame of living in cities built by the wealth extracted from enslaved people or considering the ‘afterlife’ of the racial logics that did not end with abolition, the Americans and British are invited to celebrate the triumph of, in Pinker’s words, Enlightenment values. Malcolm X criticised this narrative more directly. When asked whether there had been progress in US race relations, he replied, ‘I will never say that progress is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made.’
This healing task seems impossible. What would it mean to ‘heal’ colonialism or slavery? Even actions which seem politically unimaginable (at least at the moment) such as reparations or land return would fall short. Reparations does not undo the history of slavery. One of the questions at the heart of slavery was ‘are the enslaved human?’ That question cannot be unasked. Land return can only be, at best, the return of land stripped of nutrients, marked by radiation, contaminated and paved over. Reparations and land return are important proposals for other reasons, but they, and any other action, fall short of healing. Detailing the impossibility of this task still does not account for the appeal of Pinker’s narrative (or other variations on that theme). And, just as apocalypticism is not a rational position wilfully adopted, being at home in the world is not the result of a carefully considered argument.
The American philosopher Charles Mills provides a starting point for understanding the kind of epistemic and affective calibration that is necessary to feel at home in the world. Mills’s focus is racism, but the structure of his argument speaks to issues beyond race. In his account of white ignorance, Mills explains that ignorance is not only a deficiency of knowledge—a mere cognitive error. Instead, there is an incentive to misunderstand the world. In the example of race (particularly as it functions in the United States), this means that white people have an interest in downplaying the ongoing effects of racism. To entertain the idea that race continues to significantly determine the lives of Americans would undermine fundamental notions of the United States as a beacon of freedom and justice. It would also disrupt the fantasy of meritocracy: if the American dream is to work hard and make something of yourself, Mills’s argument shows that this dream is a lie (at least insofar as it is presented as universal). There are ‘good’ reasons to understand the world wrongly.
Mills focuses on the epistemic dimension of being at home in the world, but there is also an affective calibration—one must feel at home in the world. Not everyone feels at home in the world. We experience the world as bodies marked by racialisation, disability, gender, sexuality, class and a host of other identities and traits (each of which operates differently in different political, social and cultural contexts). These identities and traits are points at which a person can temporarily find themselves out of joint, no longer at home in the world. For others, the world is never home. Just as Mills describes and ignorance which is essential to the functioning of the world, there is a struggle to maintain this affective calibration: to not only think, but to feel that the world really is not so bad.
To reiterate an earlier point, there are plenty of people who do not feel at home in the world who nonetheless do not find themselves adopting an apocalyptic position. It is in light of this fact that the question of hope arises. It is common to understand hope in relation to optimism and pessimism. Optimism is the conviction that things are going to work out and pessimism is the conviction that they will not. In both cases, human action is rendered meaningless. The difference between hope and pessimism is usually taken as given, so it is the relationship between optimism and hope that usually attracts the most attention. One of the most influential accounts of this dynamic is from Vaclav Havel, who writes:
The more unpromising the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere”.
Havel’s definition of hope attempts to sever it from teleology—‘something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out’. This distinction must be read, however, in the context of Havel’s political successes. He is speaking of ‘making sense regardless of the outcome’ at a point where hope has won. References to Havel’s notion of hope appear in celebrations of activists whose work has, in a similar way, ultimately ‘made sense’. In Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, for example, she offers chapter after chapter of inspiring stories of those who have been able to enact change, at varying scales, despite the fact that these successes seemed at one point impossible (Solnit 2016: 11). Without undermining Havel’s accomplishments or the importance of the activism recounted by Solnit, the distinction between hope and optimism is less clear than their active versus passive framing would indicate.
There are different modes of hope. The examples thus far fall into a category that Calvin Warren describes as the ‘politics of hope’ (Warren 2015: 218). The politics of hope holds that politics is the ‘natural habitat of hope’ (Warren 2015: 219). To translate Warren’s argument into the language of this essay, the politics of hope argues that we can hope in the world. That is, the historical and contemporary relations that have come to define the world provide the means by which we can make the world better. This understanding of hope is not optimism—it is not certainty that the world will get better—but the certainty that something makes sense. Warren’s rejection of this politics of hope, what he calls black nihilism (ibid.), is not a rejection of hope, but its reconfiguration as a spiritual practice (Warren 2015: 229, 244). This spiritual practice locates hope, but this hope is in the end: the end of the political and the end of the world.
I argue that this strange hope, this spirituality without redemption, is a form of apocalypticism. Warren discusses this practice, which he sometimes describes as the end of the world (Warren 2018: 171), in terms of political apostasy (Warren 2015: 229-33). This apocalypticism does not aim a kingdom of God or harbour utopian visions. The emphasis of this apocalypticism is not that which is coming—the end or what comes after the end—but the way that an apostate relation to the politics of the future transforms relations (or non-relations) in the present. Apocalypticism does not seek out ‘making sense’, but seeks refuge in what the world renders senseless.
This argument for apocalypticism does not deny that there are moments of beauty in the world: laughter, meals, dance floors, protests, bedrooms and mountains. There are moments of losing oneself in a work of art or the touch of another person. These intimacies do not exist outside of the world, but also are not exhausted by its evil. Such moments are not innocent. They are still marked by the world they are escaping. Food, sex and laughter are not safe from the evils described above. Still, they enact ‘something’: not quite a possibility of something else but the possibility of possibilities. Unlike José Esteban Muñoz, whose queer utopianism is rooted in particular forms of intimacy (Muñoz 2009), I cannot bring myself to see political hope in these moments. Rather than gestures of a not-yet-conscious future, these moments strike me as moments of resistance or escape. They do not bear within them a positive direction or orientation. If there is a hope here, it is only hope for the end.
If apocalypticism, at least in the form I have been describing, is a form of hating the world, the task is to hate well. Hatred can be all consuming. It can leave one immobilised. It can close off the possibilities of the joys of living against the world or the fleeting moments in which it is possible to forget the world, if only for a second. Yet, hatred can also be beautiful. It can sustain. Hatred is similar to anger or rage. It certainly has negative forms and is a volatile emotion. Even the form I am connecting to apocalypticism is probably not politically expedient. Still, hatred may be an apt response to the evil of the world. To suppress this hatred requires an affective recalibration. Such a recalibration, if it can be sustained, may allow us to move through the world, but only in so far as we refuse to see the world as it is.
Apocalyptic hatred of the world, a desire for its end, is not a desire for the destruction of the human and more-than-human lives that are shaped by its violence. It is a desire for new, unimaginable meanings for these lives. This desire for the possibility of possibilities is nonetheless linked to destruction. The story of the world outlined above is the story of a material world. When Jared Sexton writes of ‘another world in and on the ruins of this one, in the end of its ends’ (Sexton 2017), these ruins are real. The story of the world is a story of devastation, and its end bears no signs of an alternative. All destruction is not the same, though, so we are left hoping for different ends than the world wars and climate change looming on the horizon.
Ultimately, I am not sure it really matters if one uses the language of hope, apocalypticism or any other language to describe one’s relation to an uncertain, though discouraging, future. It is easy to get lost in debates over terminological distinctions, especially when terms like ‘the world’, ‘the end’ and ‘hope’ are used in different configurations. Apocalypticism comes in many varieties, some of which divert attention from the horrors of the world. Even if it is the configuration of concepts rather than individual terms that matters, one must choose a configuration. In my configuration of apocalypticism, there is no use for hope. I look at the world and I see and feel many things: beauty, love, joy, friendship, solidarity, ecstasy and all the affects that escape description. But not hope, at least as it pertains to the world and its future. Let it all go down, so all that suffers its violence or is stifled by its restrictions can live and die differently. Perhaps this vision exists at the boundary of pessimism and hope, but it is a hope for a future not of this world—one that is unimaginable in the present. If there is no use for hope maybe there is still a useless hope: a hope for modes of existing that would be unable to comprehend the now that would then be a past. This future would not be the redemption of the world, but simply its end.
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